As a child growing up in Liverpool, England, Diane Ormrod recalled her mother talking about a tea shop in Wales that had divine flavors of tea, sweet scones, enchanting decor and something extra special: Hundreds of antiques for sale.
“Just about everything in that shop was for sale,” she remembered her mother telling her. “I was probably only 7 years old when she started telling me about that lovely place and ever since then, I’ve thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t that be lovely?’”
Ormrod said that as a child, the story of the tea shop was magical and she has dreamed of being an innkeeper ever since.
“I’ve always wanted to have a place where you could entertain people, but have everything there be for sale,” she said. “A place where, if people liked the furniture they were sitting or relaxing on, they could take it home with them. I’ve always said, ‘One day, we’ll have that’ and here we are.”
Over the past year, Ormrod, 51, and her best friend and business partner, Dorothée Walliser, 47, have fixed up the DeWitt Oak Hill — a new bed and breakfast located at 7803 Route 81 in Oak Hill.
The DeWitt Oak Hill had a soft opening in June and has been receiving guests ever since.
The DeWitt was originally built in 1865 as the “W.F. DeWitt Hotel,” or “DeWitt’s Hotel,” and was open as a hotel until the early 20th century.
After that, Ormrod said two women continued to run the DeWitt as a hotel until the middle of the century.
Interviews published in the 2007 book “Oak Hill: Voices from an American Hamlet, an Oral History” quotes Lionel Ford and Don Lounsbury, who recalled the DeWitt’s Hotel being run by “Angie and Gertie” in the 1940s and 50s.
“Dad and I would pick up the mail, then we’d go to DeWitt’s Hotel next door,” Ford is quoted saying in “Oak Hill.”
Walliser said she feels the history of the DeWitt being run by women is a sure sign she and her best friend were destined to own the place.
“Women didn’t do things like that back then,” she said. “Knowing that, it was like we were meant to be here.”
Ormrod said that while the DeWitt was a hotel in those days, it mainly operated as a bar, or saloon, at the time.
“I had a soda and dad had a beer,” Ford said in “Oak Hill.” “People would congregate and talk, play cards, darts and dominoes. … The bar was in the first room when you went in at the side door by what is now the parking lot.”
After closing in the late 50s, the hotel was subsequently vacant until it was restored several decades later in the 1990s, according to Durham Town Historian Nick Nahas.
The DeWitt was purchased by Sam Stickler around 1990 and placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2001.
Ormrod and Walliser purchased the DeWitt together early last year and said being business partners as well as best friends is a great combination.
“The fact that we’re not a married couple with a business and an innkeeping business is a great benefit,” Walliser said. “She can go on vacation and I’m here and both of us aren’t tied to the place all the time. While we definitely work together and help each other out, we can just pass it off to each other.”
Walliser grew up in Paris, France, but came to New York in 1999 to launch the French luxury publishing house Assouline.
Ormrod began working in the company after Walliser had left and everyone kept telling them the same thing: They had to meet; they would love each other.
The pair said it was true.
“You know how sometimes people tell you, ‘Oh, you have to meet this person because you’ll absolutely love them’ and you just brush it off and say, ‘OK, sure, that sounds great’ and think nothing will ever come of it,” Ormrod said. “We ended up in a ski house together in Vermont and met and it was absolutely true. We were like sisters — even more than sisters. We just became best friends and she really is my ‘sister from another mister,’ as I like to say.”
“I think we had met in another life,” Walliser said. “It was just something that was meant to be.”
While both women worked in New York City working in publishing and advertising, Ormrod said she always loved coming upstate, especially to Greene County.
She rented a place in Cornwallville, a hamlet in the town of Durham, for several years and bought an old Revolutionary farmhouse in East Durham in 2010.
“While furnishing the house, we were so inspired by the vintage pieces we found in local auctions,” Ormrod said. “I found so many things I wanted to buy but didn’t need. That inspiration gave us an idea.”
Shortly afterward, in 2011, Walliser said she lost her job at Hachette Filipacchi Media in New York, but decided she didn’t want to return to the corporate world.
“When I lost my job, I said to Diane, ‘Let’s do something together,’” Walliser recalled. “So, we started spending more time up here than in the city — going to country auctions — which led us to start our own online business.”
In 2012, Walliser and Ormrod’s business, French and Scouser, was born.
French and Scouser is an online source for unique vintage furniture, art and accessory pieces that Walliser and Ormrod scout out at local antique auctions, purchase, vet and curate themselves.
To peruse their wide selection of antique furniture and decorations, visit www.frenchandscouser.com.
“Before we bought it, this house was an antique center and every room was rented out to a different dealer,” Walliser explained of DeWitt. “It was the perfect place to incorporate our antique business in with the bed and breakfast.”
The avid antique-buyers have expanded French and Scouser inside the DeWitt Oak Hill, where antique furniture and accessories can be found in every nook and cranny.
Vintage mirrors, postcards and photographs line the upstairs hallway, while antique bed frames, artwork and other decorations adorn the bedrooms and bathrooms — most of which are for sale to anyone who wants to browse the collection.
Ormrod said that in addition to the antiques, many local items will be for sale at the DeWitt, including merchandise from Sheepy Valley Farms in Medusa and locally-crafted soaps, as well as jams made by Walliser.
“Almost everything inside the house is for sale,” Ormrod said. “If people like something they see or like what they’re sitting on, chances are they can buy it. We can always replace the furniture and have no problem doing that. That’s the fun: We get to buy things we see and love and then style the house around them.”
It must be fate
Walliser frequently traveled from New York City to the Catskills for more than a year to run the business and finally decided to purchase a place of her own in Greene County.
“Initially, I just wanted something cozy that wasn’t too much maintenance,” she said. “Driving around Oak Hill, I had always loved the DeWitt building and saw it was for sale. Diane and I went to see it in January of 2014 and after walking through it once and seeing how beautiful it was, I looked at the real estate agent and said, ‘OK, I’ll take it.’”
Ormrod said she was shocked.
“I nearly fell over,” she said with a laugh. “I asked her what she was going to do with this huge house, but she told me, ‘When I like something, I don’t need to think about it twice.’ She loved the house and already felt like it was hers and here we are.”
Ormrod said while she was skeptical at first, a sign of fate let them know the DeWitt was destined to be theirs.
While the house was empty, there were a few pieces of furniture and shelves downstairs with some books resting on them.
“I look up and in this large old font one of the titles read, ‘A History of France’,” Walliser said with pride of her mother country.
On March 19, 2014, Walliser and Ormrod closed on the house and officially purchased the 4,500-square-foot historic building for $147,000.
“The day of the closing, we came back in and found another book right next to it in smaller print: ‘The History of England’,” Ormrod said. “It gives us goosebumps to think about. It was as if the house was telling us it just meant to be.”
With 16 rooms, one toilet and no plumbing or electric, the DeWitt had a great deal of potential, but needed a lot of work.
“This was going to be my country house, but we realized we could make it a business as well,” Walliser said. “Because of our knowledge of decorating — and my sister who is an architect and flew in from Paris to help with the designs — we saved a lot on expenses and renovated this place in just over a year.”
Walliser said during the past year and a half, she and Ormrod have put $200,000 and hundreds of hours of work into the historic home to renovate it into what it is today.
“There was no heat,” Walliser said. “We insulated the entire house, put in plumbing and did all the electricity. We had to create a kitchen and multiple bathrooms. We did all of that and we had never used an electric drill before.”
“We kind of did everything from scratch,” Ormrod said. “We learned as we went along. Once we started doing it, we realized we can smack down a wall and the whole house won’t come down. After we used sledgehammers to make the bathroom bigger, we realized we could do this — and we did.”
“We repainted everything in here and I got better with the woodwork,” Walliser said. “Let’s just say, we added quite a few trades to our resumés.”
Ormrod said they tried their best to keep everything original in the house and preserve that history, including the original wainscoting.
Sam Stickler started it
Walliser said the building would have been impossible for them to renovate if it hadn’t been for the work of Samuel Stickler.
Around 1990, Stickler purchased the DeWitt with the intent to renovate the house that was then falling to pieces.
“When we bought the house, we saw photos of it before Sam did any work,” Walliser said. “The windows were all boarded up and it had no foundation. It looked as if it would have to be demolished and he would have to build something new.”
Stickler’s sister, Sara Stickler, said her brother worked to make sure that didn’t happen.
“Sam owned the restaurant on the other side of the parking lot, Sam’s Oak Hill Kitchen, and realized the building on the other side, the DeWitt, was falling apart,” Stickler recalled. “He thought it would make a nice antique shop, so he bought it and did renovations to fix the place up. He completely re-did the foundation and did lots of major structural work.”
Unfortunately, her brother became ill and passed away in 1992 just before the shop opened, said Stickler.
“After Sam passed away, my husband and I got involved and turned the place into the antique center that we ran for more than 20 years,” she explained. “My brother got to see it one time right before we opened.”
Stickler said the shop was called DeWitt Hotel Antiques and was eventually open year-round.
“It was a nice antique center,” she said. “We had multiple dealers — a different one in every room. It was a pretty big place and the dealers were fun and had nice things. People would come back on a regular basis.”
Stickler said she and her husband bought and fixed up several buildings in Durham, including the historic Ford’s Store, and owned six properties at one time.
In 2012, the antique shop closed and the DeWitt was back on the market before Walliser and Ormrod purchased it.
“They were definitely the right people to finish the job,” Stickler said. “I think Sam would be absolutely thrilled. The whole goal in his mind was to make Oak Hill a somewhat viable community again and I think it is, as much as a little small town can be. It’s got some really interesting places, with the DeWitt being one of them.”
Stickler said she and her husband are planning to visit the fully-renovated bed and breakfast at the end of July.
“We’re so excited to see the finished product because it’s such a wonderful building that will always have a special place for us,” she said. “Diane and Dorothée are really interesting women and it was awfully hard work, but they persevered and didn’t give up and they now have this wonderful building to share.”
The DeWitt Oak Hill has two floors with four rooms available to stay in: Two with a queen-sized bed, one with two twin beds and one with a full-sized bed.
During the week, staying at the bed and breakfast costs $165 per night in the rooms with the full-size or twin beds and $175 each night in a room with a queen-sized bed.
During the weekend, prices are $195 per night to stay in a room with the full or twin-sized beds and $205 per night in a room with a queen bed.
Ormrod said they plan to renovate a number of rooms on the other side of the second floor to make a suite, complete with a copper art nouveau bathtub and other charming antiques, by the beginning of next year.
“We didn’t want a place that felt like a bed and breakfast, we wanted a place that felt like we were staying in a friend’s country home that was comfy and fabulous,” Ormrod said. “We wanted something that wasn’t stuffy but beautiful — somewhere where you could put your feet up, watch TV or read a book.”
“We’re not stuck up,” Walliser said. “You can put your own food in the fridge and bring your dog. We don’t have a list of things you can and cannot do. We always will stay a small business. We just want people around and we want them to enjoy themselves.”
Ormrod and Walliser said they have become friends with everyone who has come to stay at the DeWitt Oak Hill.
“We had a man stay from Montreal who came down for breakfast and then went back up to his room to take a nap,” Ormrod said. “Then he came back down and had another snack and asked us if we minded if he go take another one. He was just relaxing and said he’s going to come back. We’re not uptight and that relaxing feeling is the feeling we want to give people. Now we’re Facebook friends with him and will keep in touch and it’s just lovely.”
More to come?
While the recently opened bed and breakfast is a comfortable place to spend the night, they plan for it to be much more than that, Walliser said.
The DeWitt Oak Hill has what the owners call “The Great Room” attached to the kitchen, a spacious room with a large table, comfortable sofas, an elegant chandelier and a piano that open up to the gallery space above on the second floor.
“We want the DeWitt Oak Hill to be an event space,” Walliser said. “We have so much space, we want to have small parties or small weddings and if people want to rent the house for a shower or an engagement party, we have the space for that too.”
“We both have experience with event design and have quite a lot to bring to the table,” Ormrod said. “Plus, this will give us the chance to have events in the off-season. People often go skiing in the winter in Windham or Hunter, but we hope this will give people incentive to come and enjoy other nearby places. We want to show them a wonderful time and beautiful place and get them to come back.”
While the DeWitt Oak Hill is open for business, many events and activities for the space are in the works, such as special weekends with guest chefs, wine tastings, retreats, seminars, art exhibits and more, noted Walliser.
“We want this to be a comfortable, relaxing bed and breakfast, but more than anything, we want this to be a gathering place,” she said. “We want people to just feel like they can pop in anytime. Some already do and it’s just lovely.”
Ormrod said that even though the DeWitt Oak Hill has been open for just over a month, she has already seen people coming back and getting to know each other.
“We had some people staying last week and then people who had stayed the week before came to the door to say hello,” she said. “Everyone all kind of knew each other and then all of a sudden the entire room was filled with people grabbing coffee, having the leftover breakfast that was there and was talking and laughing. We even had some guests go play the piano and start to sing together. I stood back and got all choked up because this is what we envisioned. A year ago, it seemed really difficult that this would come to fruition, but it was really amazing having it come true.”
Making the DeWitt Oak Hill a gathering place is how Walliser said she wants to give back to the community.
“When this building was born, it was really the center of Oak Hill and we want to bring that sense of community back to it,” she said. “At the same time, we want to give back to the community. That’s the type of warm, comfy, welcoming atmosphere we want to create and we hope that people will come on in, get to know us and experience it for themselves.”
To learn more about the DeWitt Oak Hill or make reservations, visit www.thedewittoakhill.com, call 518-239-6953 or on Facebook at The DeWitt Oak Hill.
To reach reporter Kate Seckinger, call The Daily Mail at 518-943-2100, ext. 3323 or email email@example.com.